What is more important in learning Korean- Grammar or Vocabulary 

 May 28, 2020

By  Satish Satyarthi

Grammar vs Vocabulary debate is as old as the field of language education itself. There has always been a fierce debate among language researchers over what is more important in learning a foreign language- Grammar or Vocabulary? And there has come no proved conclusions yet.

Recently I have been a reading a few papers and books on this issue and I found this topic very interesting. Which one of Grammar and Vocabulary is more important as far as the success or failure in Korean language learning in general and TOPIK test in particular? Keith Folse and Steve Kaufmann are some of the leading researchers who advocate the importance of vocabulary over grammar. In one of his famous articles ‘Vocabulary Myths’ Folse gives an example from his personal life to explain how important vocabulary is.
The incident happened when he was in Japan and he went to a small shop to buy some flour. He knew all the grammar patterns of Japanese to say sentences like ‘I need flour’, ‘where can I find flour’, ‘Please give me a packet of flour’ etc. but he didn’t know the exact Japanese word for flour. And all his efforts to explain the shopkeeper what he wanted proved to be useless and finally he wasn’t able to buy flour.

If I put my personal opinion, Grammar  is definitely the backbone of a language and without knowing it one can’t communication efficiently but Vocabulary is something without which you can not communicate at all, leave alone efficient communication. You need words to speak; you need words to listen and understand.

If you don’t know grammar you may sound foolish when speaking but you can convey the necessary information. The kids communicate mostly through words only for the first 2-3 years. According to Steve Kaufmann, Grammar is something that you can learn automatically with time by listening and speaking and keep correcting yourself. He goes one step further to say that Grammar rules slow down our language learning.
If we see in the context of Korean language, vocabulary is really important. You not only need a good stock of words and also their correct usage in different contexts. I remember an embarrassing episode when I was in the first year of my Korean language learning in India. There was a group of Korean university students visiting our school and during a discussion session I asked a question that was something like ‘Is there any significant difference in the way the old and young Koreans think about India’. The word I used for ‘old’ was ‘늙은’ made from the verb ‘늙다’ which I had memorized just a few days back. Many Koreans including my teachers couldn’t control their laughter. I had no idea what happened. i was so sure about all the grammar patterns and words I had used. One of my teachers explained to me that  ‘늙은 사람들’ was not the appropriate expression there and I should have used ‘나이 많은 분들’. I already knew this expression but I just wanted to use the brand new word I had learned. Most of you must have got into a situation at some point of time where you used a word which, technically, had the right meaning but was wrong in that context.

Even in the TOPIK test, vocabulary plays the most important role in your success. I have seen people, who speak fluent Korean in everyday situations, fail in the TOPIK test just due to weak vocabulary.

What is your opinion? What do you think is more important between grammar and vocabulary as far as learning Korean is concerned? Share if you have any interesting episode about incorrect use of a word?


Next Article- 5 Reasons to improve your Korean Vocabulary

  • Great! I’ll be taking the advanced TOPIK on July 22nd. Being able to focus on specific vocabulary for the test would be amazing to have as a study tool. Thanks!

      • Hi There,I am a Beginner Of TOPIK Lesson.And I Can’t Give Enough Time For My Study Because Of My Job And Don’t Have Enough Time..Please Let Me Know What Can I Do For it…Please Help!Your Any Reply Will be Helpful..:-)

  • “I have seen people who speak fluent Korean in everyday situations failing in the TOPIK test just due to lack of higher level vocabulary.”
    I’m in problems. hahahahaha

  • Hello. Korean language learner and TESOL MA student here. You’re absolutely right about vocabulary being more important, but near the end you mention how fluent speakers struggle on the test. This latter point reaches out to a question greater than vocabulary versus grammar competencies. It suggests that the TOPIK does not test language ability but linguistic ability. This is also how Korea tackles English, too. It’s problematic because, as you infer, it does not reflect actual language use. This is also why speakers of English as a second language, especially from Korea, know more about English linguistically than do native English speakers.

    In short passing the TOPIK test requires you to learn language in a mechanistic manner, but I’d recommend not to forget to use what is learned communicatively. Think of all those speakers of English as a second language who seem to speak and hear like beginners but pass any non-speaking or non-listening test you throw at them.

    Look into Vygotskian theory on SLA for more on this.

  • It’s really socked me. When i was intered in korea for work from eps. After eight month my father was death accidently,then i have to talk with our boss. In that time i said that word “내꺼 아버지가 쭈껐어” . But now that word is used for animals. So i am really i beg a pardon & sorry for that word. Its my mistaken.

    • First of all I am really sorry for your loss..
      Actually 죽다 (To die) is also used for people but for the people you don’t really care about..
      In all other cases you should use the word 돌아가시다…
      No need to get stressed about it though.. All foreign language learners make such silly mistake at some point of time…
      All the best

  • Regarding your question on which is more important vocabularies or grammar?
    i think the very basic is vocabularies.. If you know the meaning of a certain word, then you can construct a simple sentence. it is not important that you need to memorize every word to be used but rather you have to understand the meaning.

    comprehension is much better than memorization.

    • tôi thấy học bât kì một ngôn ngữ nào cũng thế…mục đích cuối cùng của nó là giao tiếp thành thạo…nên tôi thiết nghĩ,để giao tiếp thành thạo chúng ta không những cần có những số lượng từ vựng để đủ giao tiếp…nhưng bên cạnh đó cần có những cấu trúc ngữ pháp cơ bản để nói được….Người giao tiếp giỏi là người linh hoạt trong mọi tình huống chứ không nhất thiết phải có số lượng từ ngữ khổng lồ hay cừ khôi trong ngữ pháp,đương nhiên có thì là điều tuyệt vời,nhưng t nghĩ đó không là điều kiện tiên quyết.Với bản thân tôi nghĩ để học được 1 ngôn ngữ nào hay cái ji cần cũng phải có niềm đam mê cũng như cuốn hút về thứ mình đang học.Tôi cũng đang bị tiếng Hàn cuốn hút,..và đang bắt đầu học từ trình độ 1..mong mn giúp đỡ cũng như chia sẻ kinh nghiệm học tiếng Hàn

  • Your spot on when it comes to vocabulary vs grammar.

    without the knowledge of vocabulary the grammar is useless, without the grammar your vocabulary will still get u somewhere (tho a bit silly).

    I myself have been stuck on vocabulary with other languages as well. its the main reason my german is still poor. because I lack the vocabulary. and are to lazy/unwilling to learn it.

  • I am just preparing myself for the beginner topik … and for me it is verz clear
    I can achieve score of 80+ in the grammar part – Main problem is reading as there are just too many words I do not know or can not recall

    So clear for everyday useage and clear for TOPIK … vocabulary …..

  • I am presently studying Korean in Korea. What I have to say has nothing directly to do with finding the appropriate word, but rather with listening. If you don’t know vocabulary as a beginner you won’t be able to make sense out of what you hear. It will just be noise for the most part. The more vocabulary you know, the easier it is to pick out the words in spoken language. When first learning to listen to a language in an environment where exposure to spoken language is actually quite limited, the ability to learn vocabulary first is of immense benefit in 듣기.

    A language student does not have the advantage of riding on his or her mother’s back for hours listening to talk.

    However, I also find that Korean gramaticizes a lot more than English. So where I simply change the tone of my voice, Korean will have a gramatical form and conversely changing the tone of my voice does not help a Korean understand me.

    Isn’t language incredible?

  • Both vocabulary and grammar are equally important. The language itself consists of vocabulary (words) and it’s impossible to escape learning grammar because in Korean language, we express our intention with the grammar. There are people who say that when you learn Korean, the most important thing is the end of the sentence, which is the grammar. Of course you can’t use grammar if you don’t know the vocabulary.

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